Luckiest Man

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July 4th marks the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech. Everyone remembers the iconic opening line, but to really understand it, you need to read the whole thing.

Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.
–      Lou Gerhig, July 4 1939

I think if you just remember the first line, there is a temptation to interpret his words as saying because he had lived such an extraordinary life, he felt lucky. But I think when you read the speech in it’s entirety, it takes on a different meaning. He was lucky to have the present. He was lucky to currently have the support of the New York Giants. He was lucky to have the support of his mother-in-law. He was lucky to have the support of his parents. He was lucky to have the love of his wife. That is what makes the speech so special. He faced the diagnosis, and moved forward. He was not lucky because of his past, he was lucky because he had so much to live for.
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I hadn’t read the whole speech before I was diagnosed. But once I did, I understood his sentiments completely. Friends, parents, wife, kids.  I have a lot to live for.  When you’re diagnosed with a disease with no treatment or a cure, you are forced to move forward. Life isn’t on hold while you go through surgery. Life is not on hold while you wait to see if you’re going to get better. You move forward.

I think what is amazing is that the vast majority of the ALS patients I have met share this perspective. People’s symptoms may be different. Their progressions may be different, but their mindsets are the same.  Lou Gehrig may have made that perspective famous, but he is far from a singular figure when it comes to thinking in that way. It is an amazing community of people whose focus is on living life to the fullest. People who do not see that as a choice, but don’t see any other option.

But I also think people in the ALS community recognize that this is also a bittersweet day. 75 years is a long time. We hadn’t put people on the moon in 1939. Hell, we hadn’t made any serious attempts to get people into space. The polio vaccine wasn’t developed until the 1950’s.  Measles in the 1960’s.  Diabetes was still largely fatal in 1939. Treatments for HIV, many forms of cancer, and MS have since been developed. So it is tough to think about the past 75 years without thinking there has been a lot of wasted time. There have been too many other ALS patients since Lou Gehrig who have experienced the same fate. 75 years is a long time.

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But we have to move forward. The past few years have seen major advancements. After just a year and a half, I am already skeptical when any article talks about “potential breakthrough”, and I wonder how many other generations of patients believed they were living in a time when a cure was around the corner. Even Lou Gehrig underwent experimental Vitamin E shots because he thought they could help.  However, there is no doubt that progress is being made. Major League Baseball is giving $300,000 for ALS research this weekend (http://msn.foxsports.com/mlb/story/mlb-first-basemen-recite-lou-gehrig-s-luckiest-man-speech-in-honor-of-75th-anniversary-070214). Team Gleason just started Answer ALS, a $500 million initiative (http://www.nola.com/saints/index.ssf/2014/06/steve_gleason_launches_bold_ne.html). There are multiple stem cell trials going on in the US right now. The use of iPS cells in the lab gives researchers a much more useful and representative model of the disease to test therapeutics on than they have had before (http://www.als.net/ips/).  While some of the past 75 years may have been wasted, I don’t think today is.

The 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s speech is a day to look back, but more importantly to move forward.

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